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Ashes, Ashes

Chapter One: Turtle

Lucy hunched over the corpse and felt a tiny bubble of hys­terical laughter gurgle up. But as she stared at the lifeless turtle stretched out on the rough plank, the laughter died abruptly. The tang of fresh blood was unpleasant. She should have butchered it outside, by the shore, but the hour was get­ting late and she'd felt exposed on the sand. Besides, she had never actually done a turtle before, never noticed how the wizened face and papery eyelids made it look like a very old person.

She positioned the knife edge along the thinnest section of gray, wrinkled neck and pushed down, fixing her gaze steadily in front of her. The knife stuck. She tried to stop her brain from screaming thoughts of sinew and bone, and leaned her weight on her hand. The flesh resisted, then suddenly gave way. The knife slammed into the hard wood underneath, and the head rolled off onto the ground with an audible thump.

Her stomach heaved. Fortunately, it was empty. Lucy put her knife down and dragged the woven screen away from the entry hole to her shelter, letting a breeze sweep in and clear the stench from her nose.

She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, sinking to her knees. She could smell the scent of impending rain. She won­dered whether she could survive it for another year. Two days of steady rain had already turned the ground outside her camp into a series of muddy pools threaded by soggy grass­land, and since her shelter lay in a hollow, there was now what amounted to a narrow moat right outside the front entrance.

The floods had first come about five years ago, when she was eleven years old. Melting polar caps; rising sea levels; increased rainfall; a steady battering of hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes weakening the land: everything the scien­tists had warned them about. and the world mapped in her geography books had changed with a frightening rapidity; continents shifting shape, coastlines altered. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Venice, Thailand, Spain, her beloved Coney Island, Japan, had all but vanished beneath the waves. Australia was half the size it had been, shrinking like an ice cube in a warm drink, and New York City had become a clump of six or seven scattered islands connected to the main­land by a few big bridges --- the Geo Wash, the RFK, the Will Burg. Some were only accessible during the Long Dry.

Small but fast-moving canals flowed over the same routes as the old roads. Lexington avenue, Fifth avenue, 42nd Street, were all underwater now. But people had rallied and rebuilt. They'd stretched suspension bridges strong enough to hold a dozen people and a few bicycles at a time across the swollen canals that now ran in a crisscrossing grid over what had been Manhattan. Thousands of sandbags shored up the dikes along the smaller waterways, and a massive wall of masonry and detonated high-rises had been built in an attempt to keep the inland sea back from the edges of Harlem and Washington heights. Cheap plywood houses sprang up on stilts, altering the cityscape. Deep, wide gutters were cut into the ground, and cars were banned from the city, except on the outskirts and the few roads that had survived the earthquakes.

They'd called it "New Venice" jokingly, and it had seemed okay then. Lucy, living in the solidity of northern New Jersey, miles away from the shores of the sea, had felt safe, and she'd kept on taking the train into the city or hitching, kept on cruising the vintage stores for cool clothes. It rained fre­quently, making whole neighborhoods inaccessible for months out of the year, and the summers were more sweltering than ever, but the streets were still packed with people buying and selling or just hanging out. and then, as if all that had been just a dress rehearsal for some disaster movie, four years later the plague had arrived.

She could almost hear the newspeople again, like some­thing out of one of those cheesy old sci-fi television shows: the warnings to stay inside; the rising panic; the video of gaunt, red-eyed survivors, their skin seemingly charred; the doom-sayers with their sandwich boards, black robes, and crazy talk about disease-carrying birds and God's wrath. Seeing anchor­women, who normally looked like airbrushed mannequins, seriously freaking out was scary. Lucy still had nightmares. She still woke up certain that her skin was covered in scabs and she was bleeding to death from the inside out.

Instead of globe-eyed aliens or a gigantic meteorite headed straight for earth, it was the resurgence of a killer disease that had reduced the global population to less than 1 percent of what it had been within three short months. Eating healthy, exercising, living in a big house, driving a fancy car --- none of that mattered at all. The pox took almost everybody, and it seemed that people between the ages of thirty and sixty died faster and harder than anyone.

And who would have guessed that Lucy would have turned out to be luckier than her entire family?

Lucy "Lucky" Holloway. She used to hate her nickname, but now --- now it was different.

It was weird to think that her younger brother, Rob, had started calling her that as a joke. He'd also nicknamed the dog, Rex, "Tex Mex" after it had been discovered that the golden retriever could scarf down a dozen frozen burritos without vomiting, and he'd renamed their older sister, Susan, "Maggie" (short for "Maggot") because she liked to eat rice pudding while bundled up on the couch in an old blanket.

Maybe Lucy had gotten off easy. Lucky instead of Lucy wasn't too bad, and most people didn't realize it was meant sarcastically because of her ability to trip over her own two feet, break dishes, and knock books off of shelves merely by walking past them. as a preteen, she'd managed to run through the glass French doors that led into the kitchen from the pool, not once, but twice, necessitating visits to the emer­gency room and eleven stitches in her calf the first time and then, six under her chin.

She knew her clumsiness annoyed her parents. She'd always felt as if she were a changeling dumped into their magazine-perfect midst. She didn't even look like them, having inherited some recessive gene from an ancient Welsh ancestor. She was slim and gray-eyed, with wildly curly black hair --- shocking compared to their pink and blond athletic good looks. She was awkward and she was ugly. And worse than that, she wasn't a superjock like her brother or a brainiac like her sister. She was something her happy-homemaker mom and her big-lawyer dad just couldn't understand: good at nothing in particular.

In her journal she'd written long, angry, tearful diatribes about feeling out of step and alone at home and at school, where the cliques were ruled by people just like her brother and sister, until she'd convinced herself she didn't care, forced herself to tune out when Rob's latest game score or Maggie's newest scholarship was being discussed over the dinner table. at least she hadn't been nicknamed after something that pulsed and wriggled on rotten food.

Poor Maggie. Gone, and her old blanket gone, too, burned in a useless attempt to get rid of the sickness. Together with the quilts Grandma Ferris had painstakingly pieced together and Lucy's threadbare teddy bear and the embroidered sofa cushions and everything else it seemed had made life soft and comfortable. Great piles of sheets and bedspreads, mattresses and pillows were piled sky-high in every neighborhood, then doused in gasoline and coaxed into infernos that burned for weeks. When the wind was coming from the east, Lucy imag­ined she could still smell the acrid fumes like burnt hair, could still see the towers of black smoke billowing against the blazing blue sky. It was not until the Long Dry was over and the Long Wet began again that the fires were finally quenched by the pelting rains. The parched dirt liquefied into slow-moving rivers of sludge and covered everything in mud, including the pits --- the deep trenches used once the ceme­teries were full, where bodies were stacked in rows like cut logs and scattered with quick lime to hurry the decay in an attempt to prevent reinfection. Then the controlled bombings began, turning high-rises into massive concrete cairns over the sites where thousands had died within days of one another. The skeletal bodies, the livid marks on blackened skin, were buried under tons of rock, and all the crushing details of life as it used to be were erased.

The memories she tried to preserve were of her life before the plague descended, and in her mind it was like those times were lit by a gentler sun, all Technicolor blurry and beautiful. She remembered the smallest things: her mother's buttermilk pancakes and homemade blackberry jam, the smell of fabric softener, the feel of socks without holes. Now, looking at her grimy fingernails and dirt-encrusted skin, she was amazed at how much she had changed. How things like homework, a daily shower, and a hot breakfast on the table seemed so unimaginable to her now.

She was certainly not lucky. She was Lucy, plain and simple.

She leaned back on her heels, staring at the flattened pile of dry grasses where she slept, her sleeping bag with her vin­tage leather motorcycle jacket scrunched up for a pillow; the crooked shelf she'd hung from a couple of branches holding a dented tin plate and bowl; a camping knife, fork, and spoon strung on a piece of string so she wouldn't lose them; her backpack with the essentials; a change of clothing. all she had left in the world besides her knife, the survival manual she'd scooped off the floor of a bookshop with all the win­dows smashed out, and a few other personal items. The book was battered and stained, pages escaping from the cracked binding, but it was precious.

She scraped her hair back off her sweaty forehead. It was too short to stay tucked behind her ears and just long enough to fall into her eyes constantly. She felt an oozing wetness on her cheek and looked at her hands. Mud, blood, and who knew what else. Tears? Lucy didn't cry too often. She figured she'd used them all up by now. She bit her lip hard between her teeth and stood up clumsily. She'd been crouched over for so long that her right foot had gone to sleep. She dragged the screen back over the doorway, then limped over to the bucket she kept filled with rainwater and rinsed her hands, drying them roughly on the legs of her jeans.

The turtle wasn't getting any deader, and she had a lot to do before she lost the last of the daylight. She walked back over to the rough table she'd made out of a few pallets and peered down at the manual, held flat under a couple of rocks. The instructions had seemed simple enough. The capture had been easier than she had expected: sneaking up on the creature while it sunbathed on a mud bar on the shore of the Hudson Sea, grabbing it by the thin leather whip of a tail, and holding it well away from her body until she could shove a stick between the snapping jaws. and she hadn't felt much sympa­thy, not after it tried to bite her; hadn't felt so much as a twinge, even though before everything that had happened she'd been a strict vegetarian. No, she'd held it flat against the ground with the pressure of her knee, waggled another stick in front of the cruel, predatory-bird mouth until the neck was stretched taut, and then bopped it hard on its little old lady head with a handy rock.

She checked the book again. There was a page missing; there must be. She flipped backward and forward, looking for the sequence of actions that would yield four slabs of pink meat, as pristine and antiseptic as anything you could have bought off a refrigerated shelf in a grocery store. If there had still been any around. She stabbed at the creature in a sudden fury. The knife turned on the shell. She yelped and tossed it from her in disgust. She'd gouged her left palm --- a long, wide gash that instantly welled blood. She sucked on her hand, not really enjoying the coppery taste. She pulled her bandanna from her neck and wrapped it around the wound, pulling the ends tight in a knot with her teeth. Then she kneeled down and picked up the knife, rubbing the dirt from it and check­ing the blade for damage. She heaved a sigh of relief. It seemed okay. She ran her thumb over the edge, feeling a burr of roughness, the smallest of nicks. It would need to be re-honed before she could continue.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," she told herself.

At the bottom of her backpack was a narrow rectangle of gray stone. It felt like fine sandpaper. Five sweeps of the blade against it and the edge was sharp enough to draw a thin line of blood across the fleshy part of her thumb. She turned the knife over to sharpen the other side.

Lucy walked back over to the book and pushed her hair back behind her ears again with force. The gory remains of the turtle were laid out on some broad leaves. It looked noth­ing like the neat illustration. The vibrantly colored picture showed tidy quarters of pale rosy meat --- not this mutilated lumpy mass leaking muddy water and blood. The shell was the problem. Bony, hard as granite, it just wouldn't come off. She'd followed the instructions, tossing the corpse into a saucepan of water over the fire. She'd even left the turtle in the pot for longer than the ten minutes specified, but now she had to wonder if perhaps the water hadn't been hot enough.

The words danced in front of her eyes. She stared so long that they stopped making any kind of sense. The sun was setting, and the light leaking through the willow screens was dim. Lucy inserted the knife between the shell and the carcass and jimmied it around. There was a snap and the tip of the blade broke off. She stared at the knife for a moment, disbelieving, and then with a cry of rage, she picked up and threw the book with all her strength, sending it skidding across the dirt floor.

"Crap!" she yelled, and instantly was aware of the frustra­tion welling up in her throat and the hot tears coming. She bit down hard on her lower lip until the pain pushed back the angry sobs catching in her throat. Deep breath. You did not waste food. Not when it was so scarce. Not when the birds were poison and squirrels were skittish. Carefully she checked over the knife. The main part of the blade, about six inches, was still good. She could use it for most jobs. With a sigh, Lucy bent down and picked up the book, shuffling the pages back into the binding and smoothing the cover.

She leaned over the body, poked at it with her finger. The turtle's legs flopped like a rag doll. She couldn't imagine any­thing less appetizing, but there was no way she was going to give up now. She hadn't eaten anything since that morning, and then it had only been a scoop of porridge and a handful of dried, shriveled raspberries, which had tasted moldy. She took a couple of pieces of wood from the scanty pile stacked beside her and added them to the fire. She held her hand over the mouth of the cooking pot. It was hardly steaming. The wood was too green, the fire still not hot enough; the cooking stones barely sizzled when she aimed a gobbet of spit at them, and the dented saucepan of water refused to boil.

She sighed. her fists were clenched and she could feel the pinch of her nails against her palms. It was already too late in the day to build up a good fire. The turtle's mottled skin, the ragged ruin of its neck, were taking on an unhealthy gray appearance. and she could smell something swampy and briny, like stagnant water. It was already cooler than it had been for the last six months, but still warm enough to turn meat bad fast. If the last four hours weren't going to be a complete waste of time, she'd have to do something. Lucy hefted one of the heavy, river-smoothed rocks she kept nearby and smashed it into the shell, which broke into irregular pieces, some large enough to dig out with her fingers, some small bits, like yel­low pottery shards, embedded into the leathery skin of the turtle's underside. She went to work picking out the pieces until she could make a long incision in the belly. She shoved her hand in under the tough hide and scooped out the stom­ach and intestines, careful to breathe through her mouth. She'd gutted plenty of fish in the last year, and the looping entrails didn't bother her too much anymore. They were neat little parcels as long as she was careful not to puncture them. She piled them on a few broad dock leaves and covered them up against the flies. Later she'd bait her fishing lines with them and see if the catfish and eels liked innards better than the night crawlers she normally used. She flipped the turtle over, smashed the upper plate with the rock, and picked out as much of the shell as she could. after consulting the book again, she made four slits down the inside of each leg and cut away the skin. It slipped back easily, sort of like peeling a banana, and with only a little bit more cutting she was able to pull it free from the turtle's feet.

Lucy ran her finger over the hide, wondering if it was tough enough to patch the many holes in her boots. Nothing wasted, she thought, putting it aside to deal with later. She'd cured a rabbit pelt and a couple of squirrel skins before and ended up with serviceable but stinky leather, too stiff to work with easily but good enough to mend holes. She looked down at the oozing carcass, casting her mind back to tenth-grade biology, trying to remember anything useful. That had been frogs, in any case. Rubbery, fake-looking, and smelling over­whelmingly of formaldehyde. If she had a frog in front of her now, she'd have been able to skin and fillet it in two minutes flat, like one of those Japanese chefs.

She had a wild impulse to just dump the turtle and eat acorn porridge and dried berries for the fourth day in a row, but her acorn flour store was getting low, fresh meat was rare, and she needed the protein. She suspected, too, that there was more squirming weevil than powdered acorn at the bottom of the old coffee can. Perhaps if she just shoved the meat back into the saucepan, put the lid on, and left it to sit for a while over the bedded embers, the flesh would fall from the bones and she'd have turtle soup or turtle tea. There were a couple of shriveled wild onions left, some woody mushrooms she could toss in. She'd eaten far worse.

Excerpted from ASHES, ASHES © Copyright 2011 by Jo Treggiari. Reprinted with permission by Scholastic Press

. All rights reserved.

Ashes, Ashes
by by Jo Treggiari

  • Genres: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction
  • paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Scholastic Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0545255643
  • ISBN-13: 9780545255646